Mac Mini vs. iMac

The iMac finally got updated, but how does it compare to the Mac mini?

Apple iMac with Retina 5K Display review profile
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

iMac, Mac mini, MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air — there are a lot of different Macs to choose from. On the desktop front, though, the two obvious choices are the iMac mini and iMac.

In this guide, we put up the specs on the newest refreshed Mac mini against the recently updated iMacs. We probably would have never compared these two in the past, but thanks to the price jump on the new Mac mini, and the update to eighth generation Intel CPUs on the iMac, there’s now some overlap in configurations and capabilities. Weighing in features like design, and performance, and our overall impressions of the new Mac Mini, we’ll help you decide which is right for your set up at work or home.

Design

Apple Mac Mini 2018
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Both the iMac and Mac mini are made of aluminum and are designed as desktops, but the form factor could not be more different between the two. At 2.9 pounds and 1.4 inches in thickness, the Mac mini is a thin slab of metal that is similar to a super compact cable box.

A highlight for us in our review, the Mac mini is very ideal for sitting under a monitor or at the side of a desk. It easily stays out of the way in places with limited space and the fans are quiet as a whisper. Great as that is, the sleek Space Gray aluminum design doesn’t account for monitors or keyboards, all of which need to be purchased separately.

The iMac contrasts to the Mac mini since is an all-in-one computing solution. The base iMac model ends up coming at 17.7 inches tall, and 20.8 inches in width, but a 27-inch model is also available. It also packs a 21.5-inch display with 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, whereas the Retina 4K model packs a display with 4,096 x 2,304 resolution. A separate 27-inch model also packs a Retina 5K display for 5,120 x 2,880 resolution. Apple even includes both a Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2 in the box, keeping you from separate purchases.

Some professionals might prefer the iMac for its display and all-in-one design, but the Mac mini will be more appealing to someone who already has a monitor.

Performance

apple imac retina 5k display 2017 hero4
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple revamped the Mac mini with new internals to make it a better buy against the yet to be updated iMacs. The base $800 Mac mini model ships with an 8th-gen Intel Core i3 quad-core processor clocked at 3.6 GHz. It also comes with 8GB of RAM and a 128 GB PCIe-based SSD onboard. The drive is super fast and hits a read speed of 2,753MB/s and a write speed of 1,238MB/s in our file transfer testing. That is double the speeds on similar SSDs in the other desktops which we have tested before, and much faster than the SATA drives on the iMac.

For more processing power, a Mac mini model with a six-core 8th-gen Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 3.0GHz is also available for $1,100. This is the model we reviewed, which is right where the Mac mini crosses into iMac territory. It’s a seriously powerful machine — at especially for its size.

In all models of the Mac mini, up to 16GB, 32GB, or 64GB RAM can also be added, and there are options for configurations for 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, or 2TB SSDs. There is still no dedicated graphics, though, and all Mac mini models ship with Intel UHD Graphics 630.

As for the iMac, refreshed 4K models now feature options for the same 8th-gen Intel Core i3 processor and 8GB RAM found in the base Mac mini. Unfortunately, the base model (with the 1080p display) still comes with a 1TB mechanical hard drive, and the pricing is still pushed to $1,300 — a full $500 more than the base Mac Mini. If we’re only comparing those two options, the Mac mini wins by a mile.

When you compare it to the higher end models, though, it gets trickier. A separate 4K iMac with a slightly more powerful 8th-generation six-core Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 3.0 GHz is also available, but that pushes prices well into the $1,500 range. For even more processing power, Apple offers the 27-inch 5K iMac with an option for the newer 9th-generation Intel Core i5 processor. You can even go all the way up to an eight-core Core i9 if you need some real horsepower. That puts the little Mac mini way out of its league.

Keep in mind, the updated Retina iMac models also includes dedicated graphics — Radeon Pro 555X or 560X with 2GB or 5GB video memory — that’s something the Mac mini doesn’t offer. Higher end 5K iMacs come with either the Radeon Pro 570X, the 575X, or the 580X for graphics. You can now even upgrade to the Radeon Vega 48 or Vega 20 for extra graphics power.

Connectivity

apple imac retina 5k display 2017 stand2
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Apple has always embraced USB-C, and the ports on board both the Mac mini and the iMac make that no different. Onboard the Mac mini are four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI 2.0 port, ethernet port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The iMac keeps a similar range of ports, including four USB 3.0 ports, Two Thunderbolt 3 USB ports, Ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

It is hard to choose since all these ports are modern, but the win might just have to go to the iMac for its ports. Creatives are known for using Macs, and the lack of the SDXC card slot means that many might have to turn to a dongle to transfer photos and other content. It is a slight inconvenience that might be a deciding factor for some.

Buy the Mac mini, unless you’re going big

Apple Mac Mini 2018
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

At the end of the day, the $800 Mac mini is worth more than a $1,100 iMac or possibly even the upgraded $1,200 4K iMac.

But if you need serious power, the upper range of the 5K iMac, including the Core i9 model, are way beyond what the tiny Mac mini can compete with. On the low end, it’s all about the mini. On the top end, the iMac has earned its spot. In the middle, you’ll need to make a choice based more on your computing needs. For more graphical power or the visual appeal of the all-in-one, the iMac is what you want. For a more versatile setup, the Mac mini is the way to go.

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